Although she heads the Jindal SAW Ltd, a key business vertical of Indian industrial conglomerate Jindal Group, Sminu Jindal is known widely as an indefatigable Accessibility crusader. Svayam, the NGO she set up in the year 2000 has been working steadfastly to raise awareness and sensitize the policy makers as well as the society at large about the accessibility challenges of people with reduced mobility. Svayam has been an active member of the Committee set up by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of India to enhance accessibility to tourist destinations since 2007.
While many recommendations of Svayam have been accepted and implemented at many iconic tourist destinations in the past with the objective to make tourist places accessible to all kinds of people, Jindal feels that timely implementation remains a big issue leading to erosion of human rights, suffering and isolation or people with accessibility challenges. ETTravelWorld spoke to Sminu Jindal, Founder of Svayam, to understand her thoughts on Accessibility and how it can help restart tourism post Covid. Excerpts:
ETTravelWorld (ETTW): It’s been two decades since Svayam was established and working for the dignity of people with reduced mobility. How much difference has the organization been able to make in the thought process of the society towards issues of accessibility faced by people with reduced mobility?
Sminu Jindal (SJ): Yes! In fact, we are now in the 21st year of our march towards an accessible and inclusive world. In terms of impact I would say, seeing more people with disabilities out of their house and seeking opportunities and doing amazing things gives us a feeling that we have made an impact and contributed in enabling people with reduced mobility to get their rights and live with dignity.
Still, we have a long way to go. I feel a greater, sustained and robust awareness drive must continue unabated to spread the message amongst the people that Accessibility is for all; that it benefits everyone. Doesn’t an accessible toilet help a pregnant lady, an elderly with reduced mobility or an injured, or a patient who just had an operation? Does a ramp only help a wheelchair user?
Also, accessibility is not just about ramps and wheelchairs; it is much more. Where there is humanity, there must be Accessibility! Changing people’s attitude is crucial and for that, awareness is vital.
ETTW: Svayam was a core committee member on Accessible Tourism by the Ministry of Tourism. How meaningful are such committees and what difference you could bring into the policies of the government towards Accessible Tourism?
SJ: Svayam, apart from being a Member of several Govt. appointed committees, had also served on the Core Committee, constituted by the Ministry to promote Accessible Tourism. We have been closely working with the Ministry of Tourism since 2007, helping promote Accessible and Inclusive tourism infrastructure and services that caters to the diversity of visitors.
I think committees are as effective as its members. For example, we raised the issues of lack of credible research in accessible tourism and it led to Government undertaking a first-of-its-kind research on ‘Problem and Prospects of Accessible Tourism in India’ facilitated by Svayam during 2011 which had a long lasting impact on all future projects for it was amply brought out in the research that disabled travellers had and wanted to spend on leisure and travel but faced restrictions of inaccessibility.
Also, implementation is key to achieving the desired objectives. If plans and missions remain on paper only or get delayed due to paucity of funds, we would continue seeing erosion of human rights, suffering and isolation.
ETTW: How would the global pandemic will make you look beyond accessibility issues?
SJ: I think we should look at it in a different way. Covid-19 pandemic has, in fact, turned the focus of the entire world towards the need of accessibility. Tech majors like Google and Microsoft have adapted to this new shift and worked hard on the accessibility of their products in the domain of information and communication technology (ICT) which was the only medium to keep the work moving during the pandemic and resulting lockdown.
Taking a lesson from the pandemic, the governments of most of the countries are now investing in inclusive ICT infrastructure that helps the travel and tourism sector in a big way.
I think accessibility can actually be an enabler to boost tourism and help offer safe and inclusive travel. Persons with reduced mobility have the same desires and wishes to see the world. An interesting thing which I would like to add is that when an elderly or a disabled person travels, they do not travel alone. They are accompanied by caregivers, family members and companions, and therefore, accessibility makes a business sense for all stakeholders.
ETTW: How are you engaging the Indian states on issues of Accessible tourism as tourism is largely a state subject?
SJ: We have been engaging with states highlighting the economic opportunities accessible tourism brings with it. If I recall, we had conducted workshops on accessible tourism in 2008 -09 for the Ministry of Tourism chaired by the then Secretary, to sensitize stakeholders from various State Tourism Departments, as well as officers from the Ministry of Culture. The imediate outcome of these deliberations was an instruction from the Secretary Tourism that no central grant would be disbursed to the States if accessibility was not included as an essential component in the project proposals.
Providing universal accessibility in built infrastructure, transportation systems and ICT is not just a matter of human rights; it also helps boost revenue, employment and job generation. As we know tourism has been a big revenue churn for most States while some have substantial dependence on it. To restart tourism, States need to ponder on their future course of actions and some course corrections which must include ‘adding accessibility at sites, establishments and services’ to help make the sector truly ‘inclusive’ and meet the challenges of a pandemic. Many States have already taken initiatives to revive their tourism. Focusing on infrastructural development can also have a positive impact on States’ socio-economic growth as it will help in job creation, promotion of local trade and skill development, amongst others.
There are so many tourist spots which are hitherto unknown to people but can develop into tourism hotspots if accessibility improvements are undertaken. Religious and medical tourism also have big potential to grow. To boost tourism, an accessible transport system is the single most crucial link; it could enable people with reduced mobility to step out and do their jobs, travel and visit tourist places. States need to focus on accessibility in transportation, especially the last mile connectivity. Accessible pedestrian pathways, accessible bus Q shelters, accessible and clean public toilets are vital. Also, we must not forget our civic sense and maintain accessibility and not create any further barriers.
ETTW: What are the economic benefits that India as a country can leverage by making destinations more accessible?
SJ: Adding accessibility in the tourism products and services will further boost India’s Tourism growth potential. A case in point is how revenue at Qutub Minar increased once it was made accessible in 2008 by Svayam and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The successful model was later replicated to make other World Heritage Sites like Red Fort, Taj Mahal and Fatehpur Sikri Group of Monuments accessible for all. It has helped create a novel job of ‘Access Auditors’ which tells us that accessibility is a big employment generator.
We can imagine the vast economic opportunities that could be unlocked by making travel and tourism accessible for all. In other words, inclusive tourism is not just about being compliant to the laws and codes but it also makes a strong business sense!
As we would be celebrating 25th January as ‘National Tourism Day’, it is high time for all stakeholders and policymakers to understand that when travel and tourism is accessible, it would not just help more disabled population visit the places but would also inspire older adults (who have disposable income but are held back due to lack of accessible public infrastructure) to step out without bothering about barriers and safety issue. Accessibility, as our experiences have shown, also helps maintain discipline among visitors, conserve the historical sites and makes it safer and convenient for everyone.